How do you choose a book? If I want something light and romantic for a holiday I might go for one with a pastel coloured almost-abstract painting of a tranquil summer scene set underneath a title in flowing script. A thriller will probably have imposing text set over a stark background, telling you this book will be a page turner, and a book that’s been made into a film or TV show will often be re-packaged with the actors from the adaptation gracing the cover. Eleanor Oliphant picks books by “choosing the first book [she] sees. There’s no point in trying to choose. The covers are of very little help, because they always only say good things, and I’ve found to my cost that they’re rarely accurate. ‘Exhilarating’. Dazzling’. ‘Hilarious’. No.”.
Eleanor is nothing if not a pragmatist. She wears the same thing to work every day. Her routine is almost set in stone, with a radio programme following work on week days, then two bottles of vodka to knock her out for the weekend. She’s also something of a contradiction; direct and steadfast in her views and reasoning, she also reverts back into a timid, easily influenced little girl during her weekly phone call with her mother, every Wednesday at 6 on the dot. As long as order is maintained and control is kept Eleanor Oliphant, though, is completely fine.
On leaving work one Friday evening to head for her usual trip to Tesco to stock up on her spirits for the weekend, she suffers the great nuisance of being required by social decorum to walk out of the office building with a co-worker. It turns out they’re going in the same direction, even more of an irritation to Eleanor, but her conversation is as polite as can be as she ticks all the boxes of social requirement. When they reach a pedestrian crossing the two witness an elderly man take a fall and rush to help him, so beginning a series of related events that will change the life and reasons for living of Eleanor forever.
Gail Honeyman has created a compelling and important new heroine in Eleanor Oliphant. Unlike the protagonists of other books whose female characters may be flawed but are otherwise beautiful, Eleanor is persistently unconcerned by her dowdy appearance; her waist length mousey hair that she can’t be bothered cutting, her sensible work shoes and ever present ‘shopper’ bag, the prominent scarring on her face. She reads like a cross between Adrian Mole and Coronation Street’s Roy Cropper; no fool, under no illusions about herself, self-aware but also… not. She just doesn’t quite fit in to the world. She’s difficult and unusual and unlovable it seems to all, but the insight into her inner workings that the reader is afforded makes her misunderstandings heart-breaking and her idiosyncrasies heart-warming.
A deeper and darker aspect of her background in unveiled throughout the story, which on its most basic level is a lovely belated coming of age for Eleanor, where she finds people she can open up to and faces up to difficult truths. Using this as a setting-off point to examine loneliness and depression, Honeyman very effectively, almost disarmingly holds a mirror up to humanity and questions how hard it is to be kind to each other, to be aware of vulnerable people’s needs and to know, and care about, and be open about the warning signs of mental illness.
The cover of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine arrested my attention in the bookshop by the unusual font, which on closer inspection appears to be written with ash, the title surrounded by the outline of a house made out of burned matchsticks. Unlike the books Eleanor has read, the recommendation by Jojo Moyles is entirely accurate; it is “funny, touching and unpredictable” but it also carries enormous weight in its motive and message, with the keenly observed and sensitively written account of a woman’s subconscious struggle to keep her life together, and the unexpected ways in which she makes it happen.